Mira had never liked funerals. As a little girl, she was often scolded for fidgeting and sneezing at the thick smoke of incense as they stood before the pyre. It was agonizing, then, to sit still for such a long period of time, listening to a priest drone through the ceremonial readings. Her feelings towards funerals hadn’t changed, but they remained for other reasons.
The first being that her brother was being mourned.
The ceremony was a large one, nobles and their families from the surrounding provinces all gathering to grieve the loss of the Crown Prince. Mira stood at the front of the procession with a direct view of the ornate pyre, yet to be lit. Her father was at her right, his hands clasped and chin lifted in a stoic expression. He had yet to show signs of grieving, though hiding any emotion was common for a man such as he. The emperor was not meant to display weakness.
Her younger brother, Renan, stood to her other side. He twisted his fingers and bounced on his toes, anxious for the ceremony to end. He had never known Keon, the Crown Prince of Xenos, as Mira had. Being ten years Keon’s junior, Renan was separate from the bond Mira and Keon had built.
Keon had passed seven days prior. He was carried to the palace by the soldiers in his command. Mira’s father hadn’t shed a tear as the limp and bloodied body of his son was placed at his feet, but rather began shouting orders. Any sign of Keon’s blood was washed from the decorative tiles of the palace and his body was swept away for preparations. The empire was declared into mourning the next day, and black sheets were draped from windows throughout cities.
Mira wore similar dark garbs, blending with the other residents of the funeral. A black embroidered shawl was draped over her head, leaving her view of the funeral fragmented. Her typically vibrant and loose dresses were traded for a dark kaftan, the thick fabric stitched with silver orchids along the neckline and skirts. Mira despised the dress. Not only for its thick, canvas material which was suffocating in the evening heat, but for the hideous hue. Keon had always hated the color black, claiming it was far too dark for an already dreary world. He would’ve preferred the gathered mourners to be clothed in vibrant colors, displaying their joy at the life he had lived.
The clothing wasn’t all her brother would have disapproved of. The pyre containing Keon was decorated with bouquets of hibiscus flowers and sticks of incense. The box itself was of rich dark wood, carved with images of Keon’s life. It displayed his youth, showing depictions of his studies and victories in the Championship of Warriors. It followed the years as he aged, books transforming to maps and games becoming war victories. The carvings made him seem large, looming over his troops like an emperor.
It displayed what their father would’ve liked to see. The accomplishment of leadership, power, and influence. Keon took pride in all of his achievements, but he was humble where their father was not. It was the little things that he valued, such as the time he had climbed the tallest tree in their garden, a feat he had struggled with despite Mira’s ease. Or the time he had snuck into the kitchens with Mira late in the night to steal cakes to feed their unquenchable sweet tooth. Or the time he had won the approval of their father’s committee after weeks of practicing his pitch to show his ideas of creating change within the empire.
Despite his outward charm, Keon was always a modest man. He took joy from what others overlooked and preferred the shadows to the spotlight. Through his many letters, Mira had learned that it was among his soldiers he had often felt most comfortable. When he didn’t have to hide behind the opulent walls of the palace and don the sophisticated mask of the Crown Prince. Keon was never one for acting, having a face that revealed each quirk or emotion.
Truthfully, if the funeral was as Keon would’ve desired, there would be little ceremony at all. He would have wished for the world to continue and his name to be remembered through his stories. He would have wished for happiness to thrive despite his death.
He would have wished for Mira to not grieve for him.
That was one wish she would not be able to grant.
“Father of the son,” the priest murmured, snapping Mira from her thoughts. “Step forward and speak before your son is sent to Duhas.”
Mira’s father stepped forward, his expression smooth. “My son,” he said, his deep voice resounding over the audience. “Keon Okoro, was an honorable warrior. He fought and died for our empire, and his legacy will remain throughout the years. May his death be a reminder of the evils plaguing our land and only strengthen the resolve of our people.”
It was an impersonal speech. Filled with only the niceties of any other courtier attending the funeral. Bitterness twisted in Mira’s gut as her father took a step back, his eyes straight ahead.
“May Duhas greet you with open arms,” the priest said, and the soft murmur echoed as everyone repeated the line. The priest stepped forward and touched the lit end of a stick to the pyre. The decorated wood was quick to light, and the flames grew, encompassing the box that held Keon.
Mira fought down the tears rising in her throat. She had yet to cry. Not when she saw Keon’s cold form nor when she received his final letter addressed to her, found among his possessions. It remained unopened, tucked into the undergarments beneath her dress, pressed against her heart.
Mira placed her hand over it, imagining the thick parchment beneath her fingertips. It was either a letter of last words; promises and sorrows regarding his early death; or it was of the usual sort, outlining his travels and battles. Mira didn’t know which would be worse.
As her brother burned, the nobles began to assemble in order to give their consolations to the emperor. Mira and Renan stepped behind their father as was customary.
“Is it almost over?” Renan asked impatiently, bouncing on his toes as he tried to gauge the length of the line. Mira sympathized with him greatly.
“Not quite,” she said, placing a hand on his shoulder to end his fidgeting. He frowned up at her.
“Why must they all talk to Father?”
“It is tradition for the attendees of the ceremony to profess their sympathy to the family of the deceased,” Mira responded, her voice low and monotonous. A memorized line, fed by many of Mira’s nursemaids when she had fidgeted during funerals. Though with their father and Mira present, Renan’s nursemaid was declined attendance at the funeral of Keon.
“We’ve never done this before,” Renan grumbled, shrugging off Mira’s hand.
“That is because the emperor is not required to express such sympathies, though his attendance is commiseration enough,” Mira muttered under her breath as another pair of nobles stepped forward, bowing lowly before the emperor. Renan would have no recollection of the other funeral where she had been the center of solace: the funeral of their mother—only days after Renan’s birth. Mira had been seven at the time, but she still had vague memories of the melancholy ceremony. Vague memories of Keon’s tears chapping his cheeks.
As the last of the attendees expressed their condolences, the emperor dismissed the crowd and Mira and Renan were quickly led back into the palace. There would be a fasting that night in Keon’s honor, and the city would remain in mourning for another week before the black was taken down from the windowsills.
That night, dressed in a silk nightgown, Mira perched beside her window, the warm breeze brushing through her hair. She gazed out at the courtyard below where the ceremony had taken place. The pyre had ceased to burn hours past, and all remnants of the procession had been removed, leaving the large courtyard glimmering in the moonlight, empty but for the marble fountain in the center.
Mira lifted the thick letter from her lap, gazing at her brother’s scrawl on the back. Just one word. Her name. Despite the years tutors spent trying to perfect his writing to an elegant calligraphy, he never attempted to write beautifully when sending letters to Mira. They were past the masks.
Mira rose from her perch and wandered to her bed, slipping the letter inside her nightstand. Before she shut the drawer completely, a small figurine caught her eye.
It was a wooden hawk, the wood a dull orange hue. The wings had once been hand-etched with intricate feathers but were now mostly rubbed smooth. Mira lifted the small trinket and rubbed her thumb across the head of the bird.
The memory of the day she had received it flashed through her mind as she perched on the plush cushions of her bed.
It was her eighth birthday, the first birthday without her mother. Mira’s father had never been one for such celebrations, claiming the day of one’s birth was no different than any other day of the year. So, the typically noteworthy day had gone forgotten.
Mira, feeling considerably pitiable, snuck into the gardens of the palace and climbed the tallest tree, hiding among its leaves. Her mother had never forgotten such days, often organizing balls in her favor and inviting guests to celebrate the special occasion. Gifts were exchanged in Mira’s honor, and the attention had been wholly fixed on her.
Yet, today, she had walked the halls dressed in her most extravagant dress, the vivid purple silk flowing around her as if commanded by the wind, and had been more or less ignored by both her father and his officials.
So, Mira did what she often did in such situations. She hid. She hid away from her daily tutoring and responsibilities, and she hid away from what she expected would be Keon’s cheery attitude. He likely had forgotten the importance of the day as well.
However, as she sat in the tree, wallowing in self-pity and plucking at the leaves, a voice called up to her. “Mira? I know you’re up there.”
Mira glanced through the branches at Keon. He was dressed in his usual knee-length tunic, the red fabric embroidered with gold patterns, and loose-fitting trousers. It wasn’t at all the outfit of one celebrating. Mira grumbled and hid further in the shadows.
“Mira?” he asked, his voice playful. “Do you not want to see the gift I got you?”
Mira perked up. She glanced down curiously to the small box in his hand, a bright yellow ribbon tied around it. Before long, she hopped down beside him, making him flinch.
“I think you are secretly a gecko,” he said, smiling. His lightly tanned cheeks were chapped from time under the sun. “No one can climb as quickly and silently as you.”
Typically, the compliment would’ve warmed Mira, but her eyes were only on the box in his hand. “What is it?” she blurted.
“Why don’t you see?” He placed the box in her scratched-up palms, courtesy of the rough bark.
Mira tore off the ribbon, having no patience to savor the moment, and opened the box. Inside was a small wooden hawk, expertly carved.
“I got it on the last trip I took with Father,” Keon explained, grinning. “It’s made from the wood in the western deserts. That’s why it is such a peculiar color. A merchant sold it to me on the road, and Father wasn’t pleased when he found out I had snuck off on my own to buy it.”
The rebellion of its acquisition made the object all the more exciting. Mira lifted it from the box, rubbing a calloused thumb over the wings.
“I thought a hawk was fitting,” Keon said, nudging Mira’s shoulder with his knuckles. “They can fly where they wish and are wonderful predators. The merchant said they are one of the most intelligent birds with very sharp eyes.”
This brought a smile to Mira’s face, and she glanced up at her brother’s bright blue eyes. “You remembered my birthday?”
“Of course,” he said arching a brow as though offended by her insinuation that he had forgotten. He flung an arm over her shoulder and began to drag her back to the palace. “How could I forget such a special day to my favorite person? Now, tell me, what am I doing wrong that I still can’t climb that stupid tree?”
As the memory faded, Mira felt a ghost of a smile gracing her lips. Her brother had always been the more thoughtful of the two of them. He went out of his way to make people happy and was much kinder to those he disliked than Mira had been. He was hardly ever selfish and cared more for others than he ever cared for himself.
He would have made a wonderful emperor.
The thought of the empire being continued without Keon saddened Mira greatly. Her brother, Renan, would no doubt take up the position once he came of age. It was not customary for a woman to become emperor, despite age putting her next in line.
The breeze flowing through her open window kissed her skin, and Mira let her eyes drift shut. The air carried the scent of humidity and rich soil. Past the walls of the palace, the rebels ran rampant, no doubt celebrating the death of the Crown Prince.
The rebels needed to be put down. Despite her father’s claims otherwise, they were growing far more powerful as the empire grew. Soon, they could become a true threat upon the empire’s reign.
And if they weren’t taken down out of fear for their increasing strength, then for Keon. To avenge his death.